Mystery conventions have to be some of the wackiest, most creative and high energy get-togethers around, Comic Con not withstanding (if you can stand a hundred Darth Vadersroaming around).
Years ago, when I was starting out in the mystery field, a small conference called Bare Bones took place in the hills above Escondido in a church camp near the town of Julian. We stayed in cabins, ate commune style, sat before a huge fire as we listened to speakers. Sue Grafton asked for my autograph on a short story I'd just published. The following year, J.A. (Judy) Jance and I had enough of camp life and hung out at a hotel instead. One year it snowed. I met Jan Burke, Carolyn Hart and many authors who later became big names. Unfortunately, one of the California fires torched the campgrounds.
To go to something so intimate to the international Bouchercon is a shock to the system. My first Bcon was in 1997 in Monterey, CA. I got my first bookbag and free books to add to my stack at home and rode up in the elevator with Sara Paretsky. The president of our Sisters in Crime chapter had just died at a very young age and we showed up wearing our red t-shirts in her honor. We were given condolences at the SinC breakfast.
At that point, I was hooked. Left Coast Crime was easier to attend and nearly as big as Bouchercon. For WestCoast authors, it's sort of like a class reunion. Here are some high points:
1998, San Diego: Judy Jance was rushed to the hospital, possible heart attack. Her agent and I stayed up all night in the waiting room, waiting. False alarm. People rumored that she'd gotten stage fright because she was to sing in the talent show. To prove them wrong, Judy got up and sang acappella at the closing ceremony.
2000, Tucson: A major league baseball team came into town and the hotel bumped Sue Grafton from her room. We were aghast, but she handled it like a lady. I doubt if she's ever returned to Tucson and surprised she hasn't murdered the hotel staff in her novels. “W” is for What the ???
2002, Portland. My friends and I explored Powell's Bookstore, every floor. I saw my first human “statue” and had to touch it to believe it was a spray painted man. Steven Saylor was guest of honor.
2003, Bcon Las Vegas: I was on my first panel. I was nervous up on stage next to Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen Magazine. Did I really inform her that the magazine was stale? No wonder none of my stories have ever appeared between its covers.
The most recent Bcon in San Francisco was also the most generous with books, food and free alcohol. I don't know what they were thinking! As starving writers we hit the prime rib and ice cream bar with a vengeance. NEVER offer an open bar to mystery authors. I came home with 32 free books and great memories.
I've been to 19 conventions over the years. I went to Killer Nashville just to meet Jeffrey Deaver. Iattended Malice Domestic and played debutante as a first-time author. Didn't win a teapot. Took the Mob Tour with the Public Safety Writersin Vegas. Murder in the Grove opened my eyes to how much fun Boise can be. Bikini bareback riding, anyone?
My favorite conference has to be Kona, Hawaii. Besides being set in a gorgeous location, the conference was small and I did my most productive networking. I became best buds with a woman from Sacramento SinC and the Canadian mystery writers (I'll be going to Bloody Words, Victoria BC in June). I met Kelli Stanley, Sue Ann Jaffarian and Rebecca Cantrell just as they burst on the mystery scene and snapped up awards. People stayed through to the very last panel even with the ocean and sunshine trying to lure us away.
I recommend conventions for anyone who is serious about having a career in the mystery community. Max out your credit cards, sell your first born, do whatever it takes to get there. Stay in the conference hotel, too much happens on the fly. Find regional conferences to get your bearings. Bring business cards, we exchange them like we're playing poker. Don't try to hit every panel, you'll exhaust yourself. Take photos. Watch the alcohol and know who you're talking to before you say something you'll regret. Dress casual and wear comfy shoes. Case the place so you won't get lost trying to find rooms.
Most of all, have fun. It's a tax write-off, people!